BEIRUT — The Syrian civil war has spilled over into Lebanon, bringing with it sectarian street clashes, mob violence and general government paralysis in Beirut.
But it was the dramatic arrest earlier this month of a former Lebanese government minister and prominent supporter of Syria’s embattled president that has suggested the conflict may be causing Lebanon to slip further away from Damascus’ long domination.
The bloodshed in Syria has drawn Lebanon deeper into the unrest — a troubling sign for a country that has gone through its own 15-year civil war and has an explosive sectarian mix as well as deep divisions between pro- and anti-Syrian factions, many of which are armed.
The chaos could give Sunni Muslim fighters in northern Lebanon more leeway to establish supply lines to the rebels inside Syria in their battle to oust President Bashar Assad.
Tensions and intermittent fighting in the northern Lebanon city of Tripoli continued Wednesday following two days of clashes between pro- and anti-Assad groups that killed at least six people and wounded more than 70.
In New York, United Nations political chief Jeffrey Feltman told the Security Council Wednesday that as the crisis in Syria continues to deteriorate, “the situation in Lebanon has become more precarious and the need for continued international support to the government and the Lebanese Armed Forces increasingly important.”
Feltman said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has expressed concern about two-way arms smuggling across the Syrian-Lebanese border, which poses risks to both countries and violates a council resolution that ended the month-long war in 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah, which dominates Lebanese politics.
Seventeen times bigger than Lebanon and four times more populous, Syria has long had powerful allies here, including the Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group that now dominates the government. For much of the past 30 years, Lebanese have lived under Syrian military and political domination.
That grip began to slip in 2005, when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in Beirut. Widely accused of involvement— something it has always denied — Syria was forced to withdraw its troops. But the killings of anti-Syrian figures continued and opponents of Assad’s regime say he has maintained his influence through allies who now control the government.
All this made the Aug. 9 arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha all the more shocking.
Samaha, one of Syria’s most loyal allies in Lebanon who has long acted as an unofficial media adviser to Assad, was plucked from his bed at dawn by special police forces who burst into his summer mountain home. Within hours, various leaks began emerging that Samaha had confessed to having personally transported explosives in his car from Syria to Lebanon with the purpose of killing Lebanese personalities at the behest of Syria.
Two days later, a military court indicted Samaha, along with Syrian Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, of plotting to carry out terrorist attacks inside Lebanon. Mamlouk, who was appointed last month by Assad to head Syria’s National Security Bureau, was indicted in absentia on charges he furnished the explosives to Samaha.
According to a senior Lebanese police official, Samaha confessed after he was confronted with audio and video footage taken by a double agent using a camera-equipped pen. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations.
The case stunned many in Lebanon, where political assassinations have occurred with impunity for decades. While Syria has been blamed for many of the killings, no one has been held accountable.
Syria’s allies in Lebanon — including Hezbollah — were mostly silent following Samaha’s arrest, apparently believing that the evidence against him was solid.
“I think the policy (in Lebanon) has been shifting away from alliance with Syria,” said Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group in London. “The Syrian regime has been under intense pressure, so its allies in Lebanon have recalibrated.”
Syria’s opponents in Lebanon cited the Samaha case as proof that Damascus was trying to incite sectarian strife in its neighbour to deflect attention from its own problems, and they called for the Syrian ambassador to be expelled.
In unusually bold comments by a Lebanese head of state, President Michel Suleiman said he expected Assad to explain the situation.
“When any relationship with a foreign entity harms Lebanon, we end it. And when the relationship is again in Lebanon’s interest, we reinstate it,” Suleiman said in an apparent reference to Syria. His comments were published in the Lebanese media.
Analysts say Suleiman is aiming to be the new face of a more independent Lebanon, taking advantage of a weakened regime in Syria.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who heads a government dominated by Hezbollah and pro-Syrian groups, said he isn’t taking sides in the Syria crisis, adopting a policy of “disassociation.” Critics say that has led to a general government paralysis in which authorities are afraid to take sides when it comes to Lebanon’s feuding pro- and anti-Syrian camps.
Mikati commended the security operation that resulted in Samaha’s arrest, saying it saved Lebanon from “major disaster.”
“The Syrian regime’s allies are shrinking. The Lebanese government, which was ’Made in Syria,’ was among the regime’s last allies, and they seem to be losing even that,” said Hadi Hobeish, an anti-Syrian lawmaker.
Syria accuses Sunni groups in Lebanon of trying to establish a supply line to Syrian rebels across Lebanon’s northern frontier, bringing across fighters and weapons.
The Lebanese military has been deployed along the porous border area to try to prevent the smuggling efforts, but if Beirut turns against Damascus, such operations could become easier to carry out.
Even Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group backed by Iran and Syria, has sought to distance itself from the turmoil in Syria. When Shiite clans abducted scores of Syrians in Lebanon last week in retaliation for a kidnapping by Syrian rebels in Damascus, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said the mayhem was out of the group’s control.
Analysts say Assad still has the tools and the allies he needs to stir up trouble in Lebanon.
“I don’t think the Syrian regime has fully lost influence in Lebanon,” said Kamel, the Eurasia analyst. “But definitely it has less ability and even willingness to intervene on the same level in Lebanese politics,” he added.
Hanin Ghaddar, managing editor of the Lebanon opposition website NOWLebanon, said Lebanon is at a significant crossroads in its relationship with Syria.
“Assad’s aura in Lebanon is fading,” Ghaddar wrote last week.